WARSAW, Poland (AP) — The governing populist party, which has repeatedly clashed with European Union institutions, was the top vote winner in local elections Sunday, according to an exit poll, but it was headed to lower support than it got in Poland's 2015 parliamentary elections.
The Ispos survey said that in lower level elections for provincial assemblies, the ruling conservative Law and Justice party received the highest backing, with 32.3 percent. In the 2015 national elections it had almost 38 percent support.
Party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski said it was a "good result that bodes well for the future. It's a good sign." But he stressed that the exit poll result might differ from the official returns expected Tuesday or Wednesday.
In many ways it was a disappointing showing for the party, which has at times received more than 40 percent support in opinion polls and had hoped to increase its hold on power. Instead, it may have difficulty finding coalition partners, an obstacle to exercising real power.
Commentators noted the party was supported in villages and small towns, where its policy of social benefits has had the most effect, while big cities backed the pro-EU opposition party.
"Disappointing result for Law and Justice despite total control on state media and unprecedented resources invested by the government," political analyst Marcin Zaborowski said.
Its drop in support comes despite generous government handouts and a booming economy and it suggests some Poles do not like the constant tensions with the EU, which has condemned an overhaul of the justice system by Law and Justice, calling it a systematic threat to the rule of law and inconsistent with democratic European values.
Opposition supporters said they hope this is a sign the tide is turning. Some commentators also suggested that this indicates the ruling party will not be able to win majority support in Poland and will have to find a way to coexist with the opposition.
A pro-EU opposition candidate won Warsaw's mayoral race outright in the first round, according to the exit poll. Rafal Trzaskowski, a former European lawmaker and member of the Civic Platform party, garnered 54.1 percent support, which would mean he would become Warsaw mayor without having to take part in a Nov. 4 runoff. Civic Platform also won races in some other cities like Poznan, Lodz and Lublin, giving the party a boost for more elections next year.
"We are very happy," said party leader Grzegorz Schetyna. "We can be a real hope to the Poles in next elections."
Trzaskowski, whose party governed Poland for eight years before Law and Justice came to power in 2015, ran against the ruling party's candidate, Deputy Justice Minister Patryk Jaki. Jaki had attracted attention by heading a special commission for reversing housing decisions by the city's Town Hall under Civic Platform.
In Gdansk, one of the sons of democracy icon Lech Walesa, Jaroslaw Walesa, had a disappointing result, only taking third place, and leaving two others to face off in the runoff Nov. 4. Lech Walesa, the founder of the Solidarity movement that helped topple the communist regime in the 1980s, voted wearing a T-shirt with the word "Konstytucja" — or constitution — a popular sign of opposition to the ruling party.
Sunday's elections were the first nationwide test of support for Law and Justice since it gained control of the national government. Its policies have produced street protests and repeated clashes with EU leaders.
Nationwide turnout was 51.3 percent, higher than in 2014, according to the exit poll, which questioned voters as they were leaving polling stations in 1,160 locations across Poland.
The election was for offices ranging from city mayors to village councilors. Law and Justice party was hoping to strengthen its firm grip on power, which has been buoyed by handing out social benefits and questioning how much authority the EU should have over member nations.
Campaigning targeted Poland's largest cities — such as Warsaw, Poznan, Krakow, Wroclaw and Gdansk — which are traditionally pro-EU, and where the opposition is in control of local governments.
In Warsaw, in a rare sight, voters had to stand in lines at many voting stations to get their ballots. They said voter mobilization was very high in the race between the EU-skeptic and pro-EU main political forces.
"I have never seen so many people voting, this is a good thing. The question is will this be enough for (pro-EU Civic) Platform to keep power" in Warsaw, Aneta Benedyk said as she stood in line in southern Warsaw.
Poland's local elections kick off a string of crucial votes that include the European Parliament vote in May, the national parliament vote in the fall of 2019 and Poland's presidential election in the spring of 2020.